BERLIN – Germany denies.
Angela Merkel’s time as German chancellor ends – at his own insistence – in just over a year. Yet the Germans themselves seem far from ready to let go.
The closer Merkel’s political end comes (her term ends in October 2021), the more popular she becomes. The German leader’s personal approval rating has rose to over 70 percent in recent months, thanks in large part to her treatment for the coronavirus pandemic, up from the mid 50 percent a year ago.
When a reporter for German public television Merkel asked during a rare television interview last month whether she was willing to reconsider her decision to leave the political scene, the question sounded more like a plea than a journalistic question.
“Don’t you think you should be responsible sometimes?” asked the journalist, but was cut abruptly by a decisive “nein” from the chancellor.
Merkel may find comfort in Germany’s new love affair with her, but it has complicated the lives of her future successors, all of whom languish in her long shadow. That makes the question of who will lead Germany in a year less clear than in decades.
Merkel’s original choice for a successor, Defense Secretary Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, retired from the race in February after she concluded she was not getting enough support from her fellow Christian Democrats (CDU).
Kramp-Karrenbauer’s decision led to a new match for the leadership of the CDU, which she took over as chairman of Merkel in late 2017. Although the current league is nominal to party leadership, the victor was also expected to become the party’s candidate for the chancellor. in 2021.
Until the pandemic hit. The coronavirus not only forced the party to postpone a decision until the end of the year; it also turned the competition upside down, raising doubts about the suitability of some candidates, especially the league-leader.
Armin Laschet, regional prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, appeared to be one step ahead of the competition after the announcement of Kramp-Karrenbauer.
Merkel’s favorite Laschet combined a moderate voice with the gravitas that come from Germany’s most populous state. Laschet was fluent in French and also had a long reputation as a committed European. Even if he did not know most Germans, many who knew Laschet had a positive impression.
That changed quickly after the hit of the corona virus. Laschet’s response to the pandemic in his state has raised serious questions about his judgment. Although North Rhine-Westphalia was one of the worst-hit regions in Germany, he was reluctant to place restrictions on the population to stop the spread of the virus. And although he eventually followed the lead of other states by closing restaurants, bars, and most stores, he was also one of the first to call for measures to be lifted.
When the worst coronavirus outbreak in Germany broke out last month in a slaughterhouse in his state, enforces a strict lockdown in Gütersloh, an important regional center, Laschet seemed to be above his head again.
Laschet’s critics say his pandemic management has been so bad that he effectively took himself out of the running to succeed Merkel.
“He failed in the crisis,” said Michael Spreng, a leading conservative political officer and journalist. “In a crisis, politicians show whether they have what is needed or not, and Laschet’s approach was too slow and full of contradictions.”
In most cases, a stumbling leader would be a perfect opportunity for the rest of the field to intervene. But Laschet’s fellow candidates – Norbert Röttgen, another moderate who heads the German Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, and Friedrich Merz, a fiscally conservative corporate lawyer – have not proved more popular. Health Minister Jens Spahn, who ran and lost to Kramp-Karrenbauer and Merz in 2017, joined Laschet’s ticket as some sort of unofficial running mate. Some influential conservatives – including Wolfgang Schäuble, the president of the German parliament and the former finance minister – see Spahn, 40, as the future of the party, but he has so far remained in the background.
The CDU’s weakness has opened the door for Markus Söder, the 53-year-old Prime Minister of Bavaria and leader of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the sister party to the CDU.
Collectively known as “The Union”, the two sides form a joint parliamentary group and have traditionally nominated a single candidate for the chancellor.
Unlike Laschet, Söder’s popularity has increased tremendously during the crisis. A pleasant politician best known for his own crazy Söder, who only took over the CSU last year, has suddenly captured the imagination of the center right.
While Bavaria has had more COVID-19 infections than any other German region (a fact that health experts attribute to the state’s proximity to northern Italy), Söder has taken a determined course to control the pandemic. In Bavaria, where the CSU’s dominance is often jokingly compared to the popularity of the North Korean Communist Party, Söder enjoys an approval score of almost 90 percent.
He is ranked in the rest of Germany second only for Merkel. Among the future conservative candidates for chancellor, Söder leads the field by a wide margin. Nearly two-thirds of Germans consider him a suitable chancellor, according to a recent one survey, up from just 30 percent in March. Merz came in second with 31 percent, followed by Laschet and Röttgen.
Although Söder has not yet thrown his hat into the ring, he has done little to hide his interest.
Last week he organized Merkel at a picturesque castle in Bavaria for a carefully choreographed official visit that provided a wealth of campaign-ready images of the towering inhabitant of Nuremberg with the chancellor at his side.
Der Spiegel, the German weekly magazine, recently put a smiling Söder on his head Hoesand stated that he has “excellent opportunity” to succeed Merkel.
The question is whether Söder is little more than the shiny new toy from the conservatives, which will quickly lose its brilliance on closer inspection, just like the other former frontrunners Merz, Kramp-Karrenbauer and Laschet.
Although the CDU has allowed a CSU man to be the alliance’s flag bearer twice, when the party questioned its own leader’s prospects (the first time instead of Helmut Kohl in 1979 and the second time instead of Merkel in 2002) the Union lost both elections.
That seems like an unlikely outcome at this point – the center-right alliance is currently leading the way with about 40 percent support – but in the current volatile environment, that could change quickly.
It is also far from certain that whoever wins the CDU leadership match would be willing to step aside for Söder. For Merz and Laschet in particular, the only reason to continue the top job of the CDU was a chance at the chancellery.
And while Germans have been able to shine on Söder quickly after his solid treatment of the coronavirus, most know him no better than Laschet. He has no experience at the federal level, let alone on the international stage. Beyond its popularity, Bavarian would pose a risk, especially at a time when the geopolitical challenges facing Germany and Europe have seldom been as great.
Der Spiegel caught German collective discontent with a wink Hoes they decided not to run last week: a photo of Söder dressed as Marylin Monroe under the headline, “Can he be a chancellor too?”
Söder has about a year to convince Germany that he can do it.